Breaking the Ceiling

Breaking the Ceiling

Breaking the Ceiling

November 22, 2006

“GS is my baby, my heart, my guts—it’s what I think about when I wake up every day,” Susannah Karlsson said. Serving as the current General Studies Student Council (GSSC) President while triple-majoring in African-American studies, political science, and women’s studies requires a significant amount of dedication, drive, and focus—but she’s used to that. At 15 Karlsson dropped out of high school to work full-time, then earned her GED and worked at a Seattle law firm as a paralegal for two years before moving into politics. She became an administrative officer in the executive branch of the Washington state government, fulfilling a number of responsibilities for three separate agencies while also attending night school with a tuition waiver she earned as a state employee. “I hit the ceiling at age 21 or 22,” she said. “I realized that this was as good as it was going to get without a college education.”

While she was investigating colleges, her mentor Lois North, a significant figure in Washington state politics, prompted her to look at Columbia. “GS was the only nontraditional college that seemed to have it figured out, where the classes were not taught by adjunct professors, and there weren’t the separation factors you see at other schools,” she said. “It was such a good fit for me.”

Karlsson was appointed the GSSC Vice President of Finance in the fall 2005 semester, her second at GS. She was elected President in April 2006. With only a few months left until her term expires, Karlsson is moving quickly to accomplish as much as she can. “We’re working on lots of things, but all of them are tied to integration and community,” she said. “The culture of GS has been slow to follow its structure, and we’re trying to have the culture keep pace.” The council’s efforts will include an upcoming public relations campaign to “get people’s faces out there and celebrate GS students’ accomplishments and identities, which are special and different,” she said. “We don’t want to homogenize; we want to be diverse and find areas of crossover. GS could be the most amazing contributor to the University, and we want to bring that to the fore and celebrate it.”

Karlsson is also planning to initiate a mentoring “bridge program.” Under the program GS students who have worked in a particular industry will serve as mentors to students from Columbia’s other undergraduate colleges. Karlsson noted that her proudest accomplishment to date as GSSC President has been exposing the conditions of the Nussbaum residence. “That was something real and tangible that was really important to GS students,” she said. “A good number of them were just living in squalor, which is unacceptable. We got real results in a timely manner. The administration listened to us and did what they needed to do, and there was a real improvement in people’s daily lives.”

After graduating in the spring, Karlsson plans to attend law school and work for an NGO, “to try to use what I’ve learned to make a real difference,” she said. “After honing my craft for 5 or 10 years, I plan to run for office in my home state of Washington and go from there. The sky’s the limit.” General Studies Student Council website: http://www.gslounge.com